15th Legislative Assembly & the Montana Federation of Labor 

One hundred years ago in January 1917 the 15th Legislative Assembly was called to order.  It was a time of tense nationalistic feeling and growing labor unrest as American industry, after decades of financial uncertainty, squared off against a growing radical labor movement.

In the midst of this turmoil, Mortimer M. Donoghue, president of the Montana State Federation of Labor (MSFL), rose to address the delegates of the 22nd Convention of the Montana Federation of Labor.  Donoghue reported on the status of several legislative bills the federation of particular interest to organized labor in the state.

Representative Frank C. Murray (D) Great Falls, introduced HB 4 “An Act regulating and limiting the hours of employment and governing the conditions under which female employees shall work in certain industries and providing penalties for violation there.”  Murray, a former union member, was also serving as the chairman of the House Labor Committee.

Representative Dwight N. Mason (D) Ronan, introduced HB 29 “An Act to amend Section 1739 Revised Codes of Montana of 1907 relating to the hours of labor for municipalities, mines, mills and smelters.”  The bill spoke directly to the establishment of an eight-hour day for those who worked as engineers, firemen, caretakers, custodians, workingmen, and employees in sugar beet factories.

Senator Daniel Healy (D) Livingston, introduced SB 39 “An Act to make lawful certain agreements between employers and laborers, and limit the issuance of injunctions in certain cases.”  Referred to as the “Model Labor bill,” it was something that had gained national attention in Massachusetts and became a legislative priority of the American Federation of Labor under the leadership of Samuel Gompers.  President Gompers believed that labor organizations of “wage earners” should be exempt from prosecution under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, a tactic that had become commonplace with the rise of industrial monopolies during the Gilded Age and an effective means for industry to break unions when they called strikes or boycotts.

The Daily Missoulian reported on February 9, 1917 the following regarding labor legislation supported by the Montana State Federation of Labor.

Although SB 39 survived the adverse committee report, it was officially killed later that month.  Also killed were bills that would have ended blacklisting (HB 188) and increase wages for some of the employees of the capitol. HB 4 passed through Legislature and was signed into law by Governor Samuel V. Stewart (D).

The 15th Montana Legislative Assembly adjourned sine die prior to the United States Congress declaration of war on Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire.  This resulted in Governor Stewart calling an Extraordinary Session in 1918 to address war time measures and legislation to promote those measures to the fullest.  Montana’s sedition and treason law as well as its criminal syndicalism law better served the interests of industry to the detriment of organized labor, busting the rock upon which labor had constructed its house in the West.

Government agents spread throughout Butte and infiltrated local unions, made lists of workers, and reported back to the FBI and U.S. Justice Department Bureau of Investigation. These same government agents shared their intelligence with employers. Not only were Butte workers spied and reported on, but when they bravely stood up against corporate injustices, sedition and treason laws were used to send military troops into Butte to break strikes and the will of workers.

Now, the Montana Legislature enters its 65th Legislative Session. Many of fights that were being fought at the turn of the last century endure to this day. Workers remain under attack.

Using the budget as a political opportunity, legislators may target hardworking public servants during budget discussions.

In times of turmoil, like now and like in 1917, Montana’s leaders should be looking to help workers, not make things more difficult for them. Instead of focusing on striping workers of their rights to speak together in one voice, our leaders should focus on creating good paying jobs that come with union benefits dedicated to rebuilding our state’s crumbling infrastructure.

Montana’s political leaders should be finding ways to help hard working families by supporting pre-school for all and affordable college rates.

Instead of playing political games, our legislators should address our inevitable worker shortage by investing in training programs and apprenticeships that keep young Montanans in Montana with family-wage jobs.

Instead of playing the blame game, Montana’s lawmakers need to step up and find a way to ensure our highways are safe and support the highway patrol and its employees.

Instead of rhetoric on climate change, Montana legislators should be finding ways to incentivize investment in new technologies in Colstrip that keep Montanans employed and employee hundreds more.

In 1917, some courageous legislators from across Montana worked to expand workers’ rights and dignity in the workplace and there were successes. One hundred years later, we hope the same will be said of this current legislative body. Let this be an era of government support for workers, not government attacks on workers.

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